Across the animal kingdom, species display a variety of courtship rituals. Usually it's the males working hard to attract the attention of females through sound, strength, construction skills or fighting prowess, or simply through dashingly good looks. This is particularly true among birds, which have an extraordinary range of ways to impress the opposite sex.
From bower birds that build elaborate structures to birds of paradise that grow impressive plumage, feathered Romeos exhibit some amazing behaviors, especially dancing. We've compiled a collection of different dances by species ranging from songbirds to seabirds. Check out some of the more impressive mating dances of the avian world.
Superb bird of paradise
This bird's spectacular dance was made famous in a BBC documentary. The feathers of the male is one of the darkest hues of black in the world, absorbing up to 99.95 percent of directly incident light. The black coloring creates an optical illusion with the bird's other green-blue feathers making them appear brighter and iridescent next to the black feathers.
When the male bird erects his plumage during a courtship dance into what is essentially a parasol of black and shimmering color, the effect looks like someone turned a black-light on and there's a glowing face in front of you. Really, no one narrates the scene better than Sir David Attenborough so we won't even try. Just have a look:
The red-capped manakin is a fruit-eating bird native to Central America. The males of the species stand out with their dark black plumage with a contrasting head of vivid red. But the plumage isn't enough to capture the attention of the ladies. The males also must have some impressive courtship dance moves.
There are four behaviors that males display, including pivoting back and forth on a branch, darting between a primary perch and surrounding vegetation while making a snapping sound with his wings when leaving his perch, and also circling in flight then returning to his perch. But the most impressive of all is the fourth display, a move that looks very much like a skilled moonwalk. The male red-capped manakin looks like he is gliding along the perch — a smooth move to get the attention of females.
Albatross species have beautiful, elaborate and somewhat strange courtship dances. Finding the perfect dance partner is how albatross pairs decide whether or not they've found their mate for life. Partners, and sometimes even groups of three or four, will dance and see if they're compatible. It sometimes takes years of an albatross returning to the breeding ground and practicing dance moves before finally finding a permanent partner.
Each species of albatross has a unique dance, but the black-footed albatross has one of the most interesting, which includes head bobbing, bill clapping, head shaking, calling, wing lifting, and sky pointing among other coordinated moves. You have to see it to get the beauty and complexity of it:
Western and Clark's grebe
Grebes have an aerobatic courtship dance that includes elegant head arches and, importantly, running in sync across the surface of the water. National Geographic explains, "Western and Clark's grebes engage in a maneuver called rushing during the spring mating season, in which they sprint up to 66 feet across the water in coordinated groups of two or more in about seven seconds. They're the largest vertebrates with the ability to walk on water ... A combination of up to 20 steps per second, forceful slaps on the water's surface with splayed feet, and an unusual stride help these grebes defy gravity."
The ability to run across the water together determines the future of the couple. If potential partners can't keep stride, they won't make the cut as mates. If they do, the pair will move on from the "rushing ceremony" to phase two, the "weed ceremony" which includes additional moves meant to woo. But the most impressive to birdwatchers is the rushing. This video shows just how extraordinary grebes look in their watery dance.
While the superb bird of paradise takes the umbrella-o-feathers approach, the Vicroria's riflebird takes the singing circle-o-feathers approach. The dance seems to be the best way to show off the iridescent feathers of the male's neck. And as he sings, the vibrant yellow of his mouth is shown off. In a dim rain forest, such a bright display of color along with a vigorous dance of the wings seems to really win over the ladies.
Perhaps one of the most famous courtship displays among birds is that of the peafowl. Male peafowl, known as peacocks, have long, elaborate tail feathers that can be erected into a spectacular display of color and pattern. The tail feathers of the peacock make up as much as 60 percent of their bird's total body length! As you'll see in the video, all the pomp and circumstance seems is only to impress the females. A female selects a male based on the size, shape and color of his tail feathers, which means males have to look their very best while they're supposedly not being noticed. It is the female's pickiness that has driven the evolution of the extravagant plumage of the peacock.
For sandhill cranes, the solution is to ditch the royal train of colorful feathers and play "lords a leaping." Rather than focus on fancy plumage, sandhill cranes court in athletic jumps, sometimes grabbing bits of vegetation to toss in the air for added effect. According to the National Wildlife Federation, "Although the dancing is most common in the breeding season, the cranes can dance all year long. Sometimes the dance involves wing flapping, bowing, jumps and simply playing around."
Sandhill cranes mate for life, but even when they've found a dancing partner, they still like to take a turn around the dance floor together to keep their moves on point.
The name of the species gives away the fact that these birds have brilliantly blue feet. With such a standout trait, you might be guessing that the feet factor in to the courtship dance. And you'd be guessing right. The blue color comes from carotenoid pigments that the birds gain from the fish they eat, and brightly colored feet suggest that the bird has a strong immune system.
Because feet show off the health and age of a potential partner, blue-footed boobies do a high-stepping strut to show off their feet to prospective mates. Along with flaunting their feet, males also present nesting materials to females and engage in sky-pointing. You'll see all the fancy moves in this video:
Spiked feathers, colorful skin, movement and sound all come together in one of the most fascinating avian courtship displays in all of North America. Audubon writes, "The greater sage-grouse display is among the most complex of bird mating rituals. Dozens of males strut, fan their tail features, and pop the yellow air sacs on their breasts to create a 'wup' sound that can be heard two miles away. Beginning around dawn, and peaking in intensity at the time of the full moon, males display for three to four hours. A single male may mate with 20 females in one morning. All this activity requires a lot of energy, and males lose a significant amount of body weight during breeding season."
The dance is extraordinary, and unfortunately is a vanishing sight — greater sage-grouse numbers are plummeting as they lose their habitat to development.
What list of courtship dances would be complete without the elegant and odd flamingo? This species' dance, however, is a little bit more like an organized group march of ballerinas. The flamingos form a tight group and walk together in formation, their long necks held high while turning their heads quickly from side to side in a movement called "head flagging."
The whole thing looks a bit like a bunch of uptight and perplexed pink birds that have gotten lost and are looking for the right route. But the dance is indeed quite organized and purposeful.
Though they dance as a group, flamingos are monogamous and pairs stick together as their raise their chick.